Here’s How Social Media Could Promote Democracy

By Ashnah Kalemera

Social media is fast becoming one of the major uses of the Internet. Wikis, blogs and other social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube have been added to the Internet as enablers for developing, storing and disseminating instant information to audiences of people in diverse locations at a fairly low cost.

Social networks could potentially be used for a broad range of participatory activi­ties, such as demanding for public services like education and water, contacting leaders, political cam­paigns and discussions, and fighting corruption. They also could play a critical role in citizen engagement and advocacy, which have a major bearing on transparency and ac­countability in governance and the conduct of public affairs.

With growing numbers of Africans becoming internet users, monthly web information analysis by Alexa.com shows that there are a significant – and rising – number of users of social media on the conti­nent. Facebook, a social networking platform that allows highly interac­tive processes, claims that it has 750 million users, half of whom log on daily with the average user having an estimat­ed 130 friends.

In June this year, Alexa.com ranked Facebook the second most visited site in the world. The site was ranked the most popular for social networking in Egypt, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Moroc­co, Nigeria and Sudan. In Algeria, Cameroon, Congo, South Africa and Uganda, Facebook was ranked the second most used website.

Twitter, another social networking and micro blogging service with instant dissem­ination of up to 140 character strokes, has also greatly attracted citizens and policy makers on the continent. Ranked the 9th most popular so­cial networking website globally by Alexa.com, it was widely used by South Africans, Nigerians, Kenyans and Ugandans, taking 7th or 8th posi­tion of these countries’ internet traffic.

Overall, users of social networking sites form a network that provides a powerful means of sharing, organising, and finding con­tent and contacts. Citizens, with the capacity to undertake independent analysis of issues, form opinions and influence others, and can lever­age on social media for policy engagement. This engagement can be with other citizens as well as with their leaders. For instance, admin­istration complaints can be made more easily by directing them to public institutions’ Face­book accounts or by mentioning them on Twit­ter.

For governance in particular, infor­mation flow through the smooth collaboration of information providers could help in over­coming various institutional problems such as graft. Citizens’ and governments’ use of so­cial media platforms translates into becoming bound to one another through exposure to a common class of problems, pursuit of joint so­lutions and thereby embracing ‘change’. With more and more applications being developed by individuals and groups, social media stands to become even more interactive, far-reaching and viral.

However, most African governments have not taken significant steps toward making the use of social media and net­works within administrations official and widespread. In fact, the policy environ­ment remains un-conducive with most government Internet related regulations aimed at protecting political interests at the expense of enabling citizen partici­pation.

Ultimately, the prospects and po­tential of social media remain anchored in the complexity that is the socio-economic, technological, political and cultural environment. Access to the in­ternet, ability to effectively use diverse media tools, as well as time and security issues and citizens’ knowledge of how best to use the mediums, will determine how much civic participation, transpar­ency and efficient public service delivery can thrive via the social mediums available.

Although social media networks are unlikely to replace traditional policy and gov­ernance processes in Africa, it is un-doubtable that they can effectively contribute to mean­ingful citizen motivation, sensitisation, educa­tion, mobilization and ultimately, influence. What is required is for governments to lever­age on these technologies in service and infor­mation delivery.